Burdens of bees

Last week, as I walked home in the dark evening with heavy food shopping bags cutting into my hands, I started thinking about the hefty burdens worker bees carry.

It looks idyllic when bees fly past with leg baskets laden with bright pollen. A successful trip; they have found food to bring home to their sisters. But those little bees are often carrying around half their own body weight in water, propolis, nectar and/or pollen. Female bees weigh 90mg and typically bring home around 40mg of nectar in their honey stomach. Strong though they are, there must be a physical strain associated with that. Perhaps even pain?

Bee with orange pollen

I feel pain in my arms and shoulders when I carry heavy bags, so it doesn’t seem an unreasonable thought to me that the workers might be feeling discomfort too. Not only that but perhaps stress – after all they must dodge multiple obstacles on their way home. Birds looking out for a tasty snack, zooming cars, people who dislike insects.

What a relief it must be for a forager bee to return safely back to her colony. To unpack her pollen into a cell or pass her nectar to a eager house bee. A load unburdened – it feels good to come home, doesn’t it? To wipe your feet and rest for a moment.

Each time she leaves the hive and flies out into the outside world, she takes a risk. I hope that landing on a flower is a joyous, sensual experience for her, as her feet taste the nectar and her brain takes in the heavy scent. A reward for the weight her little body is carrying. During the short 4-6 week typical life span of a foraging bee, she will work herself to death, her wings fraying and her body gradually wearing out.

Bee on dog rose

A winter bee lives such a different life to the summer sisters she never knew. A winter bee will never feel the warmth of summer sun on her back. Instead she spends most of her life in the dark, huddling round her mother and fellow winter sisters, slowly feeding on the energy filled honey her summer sisters spent so much time and effort gathering. Hemmed in by the cold. Who has it easier, I often wonder. Which would you rather be?

Dead bee with pollen. She never reached home.

About Emily Scott

I am a UK beekeeper living in Ealing, west London. I have been keeping bees in the Ealing Beekeepers Association’s local apiary since 2008 and created this blog as a record for myself of my various beekeeping related disasters and - hopefully - future successes. Busy taking the British Beekeeping Association module exams too!
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34 Responses to Burdens of bees

  1. What lovely and inspiring writing. Thank you.

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  2. I also often wondered about the carrying capacity of the worker bees, in the sense of how many trips need to be taken to provide us humans with a single jarr of honey. Quite an incredible number I would guess.
    However I do feel you are antropomorphing our charges somewhat. I very much doupt they are able to feel discomfort in any conscious sense.
    Hives may react in a somewhat “intelligent” manner, but workers I view as automatons, tiny robot doing what they are programmed to do.

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    • Emily Scott says:

      In the past people thought animals couldn’t feel any pain, which was used as an excuse for behaviour such as throwing cats out of tall buildings. I doubt many would now question whether that was the case.

      If mammals can feel discomfort and pain, both physical and emotional, then why not insects? Although each worker may look identical, research has found that each behaves in different ways. For example, some workers will go on up to ten foraging trips a day, while others will only go on one or two. Some spend much longer sleeping than others. Some spend more time just walking round the hive.

      If mammals have different personalities, why not insects? I think we need to be open to the evidence.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. beatingthebounds says:

    Just 4 weeks? That all sounds a bit grim, when you put it like that. I shall look at bees in a new light!

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  4. Erik says:

    I like your description of the summer vs winter bee, I can see it in my mind. Good children’s book in there somewhere. Thanks for sharing.

    There is some debate on whether insects feel pain or not, and even a stimulus-induced reaction does not mean they feel pain or can entertain an emotional response such as suffering or hurt. It is fun to think about, though.

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    • Emily Scott says:

      Thanks Erik. I prefer to take the view that animals, including insects, are likely to feel both physical and emotional pain in the same way as us, until we have some convincing evidence otherwise. If there is an evolutionary advantage to us feeling pain, then why not insects too?

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      • Erik says:

        Exactly. When researchers found that insects do not have pain receptor cells like many other animals, they assumed they did not feel pain. Some folks are reconsidering this now, as insects have exhibited pain-like responses to certain stimulus. The question remains whether they “feel” emotions or not, but like you I prefer to give them the benefit of the doubt.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Jonathan Harding says:

    It does seem that bees do have programmed behaviour and that there is little room for individualistic or entrepreneurial activity in a hive centred round the queen and her pheromones.
    However in certain activities– deciding when to supersede their failing queen —what percentage to build of varying cell sizes(worker,drone or Queen) and choosing where to go or stay when swarming,-worker bees do seem to exercise an element of group choice over the queen.
    The dancing scouts do present their individual opinions as to good nectar sources and also good future hive locations and their sister workers observe and choose.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. P&B says:

    This is a very lovely and philosophical blog. Imagine flying five miles with that load! After three years of keeping bees, learning and studying their behaviors, I have more respect for them than many humans I have encountered. As easy a life the winter bees seem to have I would rather be a summer bee. The summer bees may work themselves to death, as you put it, but they have a chance to explore the world, smell the flowers and roll around in pollen, not be cooped up in a cold and dark hive…….and hope that there is a warm day in the middle of winter that I can go out and relieve myself (as a bee I mean)!

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Not a difficult choice for me – a summer bee performing her labour of love. 🙂 Amelia

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Grower says:

    Give me the summer! Although, as a guy I wouldn’t be visiting flowers 😉 I’m curious now what percentage of her body weight a worker carries on each trip. Going to poke around and see if I can find an answer.

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    • Emily Scott says:

      Technically a bee’s honey stomach can carry about 90-100mg, her own body weight. However, in practice the books I’ve read say bees usually carry 20-40mg of nectar in their honey stomach, that is 22-44% of their own body weight.

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  9. Bill says:

    I’d definitely rather be a summer bee working myself to death than a winter bee huddled inside the hive to stay warm. But the best life is probably a drone’s life. Unless, of course, winter is approaching. 🙂

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  10. Now I’ve caught up with this, very enjoyable post. And comments too! No one seems to prefer a winter spent feeding on honey, so I’ll go for that… RH

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  11. Pingback: Honeybees in Autumn | Petals and Wings

  12. thomas73640 says:

    We sometimes forget about all that hard work the bees do to collect pollen and an average colony may require 45 kg in a season and that is something like 4,500,000 trips just for pollen.

    Let’s not forget the boys it’s got to be a good life, four months on average unless one gets lucky hanging out with his buddy’s waited on hand and foot move from hive to hive. Mmmm sounds familiar.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Emily Scott says:

      Mad when you think about all those trips they do. The pollen is less heavy at about 16mg (8mg x 2 pollen baskets) collected per trip on average, but then some bees will collect both pollen and nectar so that must be extra heavy.

      All those muscles on the drones and you never see them carrying the shopping home!

      Liked by 1 person

  13. donna213 says:

    You answered questions I had too. I see the bees laden down with pollen, flying in a wobbly manner. I never realized they are caring half their weight, yet it makes sense. I just mentioned on GWGT that I can no longer carry heavy things so I guess I am getting a bit frayed too. I too was wondering how many trips a bee makes in one day? I know you mentioned them having the sensual experience of the flower, kinda like in the movie, Bee Movie, but all that work! I would hope they are happy bees.

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